The big interview: Luis Figo – "Barça weren't treating me properly – it was too late when they did, so I joined Real Madrid"

Growing up, how much time did you spend honing the step-overs, feints and dummies that you would later use to such good effect? Were you always a winger?
Bill Fowler, Worthing

I truly believe that everything was born with you and it’s something that comes naturally. Of course, later you need to practise these skills a lot in training sessions and games, but if you don’t have a natural talent, it’s worthless. I haven’t always played as a winger. Actually, I only started to play as a winger when I joined Barcelona. At Sporting I used to play more as a midfielder.

For someone who’s never played in England, you have exceptional English. Why is this – did your parents encourage you to learn or are you just good at languages?
Tony Stevens, Inverness

Portuguese people have natural skills to learn new languages. I believe I’m not an exception. When I was in school I wasn't a big fan of English classes, actually. But later, when I was living in Barcelona, I had to improve my English to seduce my wife, who is Swedish [laughs]. I think that was the crucial moment. I never had proper English lessons, but I went to some business English classes to learn specific business vocabulary.

As part of the so-called Golden Generation of Portuguese football, you won the Euro U16s and World U20 championships. Did such success convince you all that you were going to win something at senior level too?
Mike Gilding, Manchester

Yes, I think that generation changed Portuguese football and opened many doors. Back then, clubs could only use three foreign players and they were forced to give more chances to younger players. And those trophies we achieved in the youth teams proved there were quality players over there.

Other than Eusebio, who were your heroes growing up?
Nigel Clausen, Sheffield

To be honest, Eusebio was not among my big idols because I never saw him play. I was more a fan of the great players from the 1980s, especially after the 1982 World Cup. There was Maradona, Zico... in Portugal, Fernando Chalana and Paulo Futre, both of them wingers. I guess we all have a tendency to like guys who play in the same positions as we do, right?

You first played under Bobby Robson at Sporting. Did he ever get the names of players mixed up, as he often did in England? What’s your favourite Bobby Robson story?
Adam Robertson, Plymouth

Bobby Robson turned to him and said: “Ronaldo, Ronaldo... I want a double hat-trick, double hat-trick.” We all rolled on the floor laughing

Not that I remember! Of course he was a foreigner and sometimes it was hard for him to remember some words or some names of the players, but I don’t remember him calling a player by someone else’s name.

Once, at Barcelona, at half-time during a match against Logroñes that we were winning 4-1 or 5-1 with three goals from Ronaldo, Bobby Robson turned to him and said: “Ronaldo, Ronaldo... I want a double hat-trick, double hat-trick.” We all rolled on the floor laughing. We all knew what a hat-trick was, but... a double hat-trick?!

What happened between you, Juventus and Parma in 1995? Did you really sign for both clubs?
Barry Rendell, Grimsby

It was the only proper contract I really signed – what I’d signed with Juve wasn’t supposed to be a valid contract

My contract with Sporting was about to expire and the club hadn’t done anything to sign a new one – at least not when I thought they should have. They reached a deal with Juventus to transfer me, but I was angry when I found out about it and I signed a contract with Parma’s president, Giambattista Pastorello.

It was the only proper contract I really signed – what I’d signed with Juve wasn’t supposed to be a valid contract. But Luciano Moggi, whose influence in football I understand a bit more these days, managed to ban me from playing in Italy for two years. Maybe it was my lucky moment, because in the end I went to Barcelona.

Johan Cruyff signed you for Barcelona to replace Michael Laudrup. How much pressure did this put on you?
Ross Heron, Didcot

When you are 22 and you face a challenge like Barcelona, you never think about who you’re going to replace. You just want to do your best, prove what you’re capable of and show that you deserved the chance. That was exactly what happened to me. It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my career.

Cruyff was known for having tactical theories that were often out of left-field. Where there any examples of this during your time at Barça?
Mark Goss, Bradford

That’s not true. He was a real visionary, and I learned a lot with him.

In 1996/97, Ronaldo scored 34 goals in 37 games. What was it like to play with him when he was at his best?
Kevin Wilson, Bridgend

Ronaldo was just amazing. He was born with this special talent for football. His strength, speed and skills were unique. Some players work 14 hours a day and they just can’t reach a high level. Ronaldo almost didn’t need to practise to be a great player. I don’t think I ever had a team-mate who achieved such impressive figures in just one season.

I’ve read that after winning the title with Barça, you once dyed your hair red and blue and chanted ‘White cry-babies, salute the champions!’ Is this true?
Chris Piper, Liverpool

Yes, it’s true. They’d spent the entire season complaining about referees and saying that we had all the benefits. In the heat of the celebrations, I did sing something like that. I shouldn’t have done it because in football you should always respect your opponents.

You used to own a Japanese restaurant in Barcelona – what do you prefer, a traditional Portuguese cozido or a tasty bit of sushi? Did the players ever come to the restaurant and try to eat for free?
Glenn Marsh, Bath

It didn’t last long because soon we moved to Madrid and we closed it in order to avoid problems in Barcelona

It all depends on how hungry I am or whether I’m having lunch or dinner! I love Japanese food, but also Portuguese. The truth is the restaurant belonged more to my wife; it was a business we set up together with a couple who are friends with us.

And it didn’t last long because soon we moved to Madrid and we closed it in order to avoid problems in Barcelona. All my team-mates had to pay, sure. There’s a rule in business: never give anything to your friends!

Many have said that your performance against England at Euro 2000, when Portugal came from 2-0 down to win 3-2, was one of your best. What do you think? Were England just tactically naïve?
Marcus Watson, Gravesend

I think England were just England: it’s a matter of culture and mentality

I’m not sure if it was my best game, because I had some great games for Portugal. In fact, all the games I played for my country were extraordinary. I’ve always been proud to play for Portugal. It’s natural that people remember that match because it was in the Euros and had all that symbolism.

I think England were just England: it’s a matter of culture and mentality. I remember once, while I was still at Sporting, we had a friendly game against Newcastle and we were losing 3-0 at half-time and we managed to win 4-3. An Italian or Spanish side would never let the opponent come back from 3-0 down. But English football is open, they always try to attack, even if they are winning.

Looking back at the way you went out of Euro 2000 after a controversial penalty was awarded for a handball against Abel Xavier, how do you feel now? Angry? Embarrassed?
Darren Lang, Berkhamsted

I don’t think a foul like that in that crucial moment of the game, would have been given if it had happened in the other box

Back then I felt robbed and extremely disgusted. I don’t think a foul like that, in those circumstances, in that crucial moment of the game, would have been given if it had happened in the other box.

The referee didn’t see it; it was the linesman’s decision. And I don’t believe that he could be sure of his decision because everything happened so fast. I never saw that incident again on TV. Why? Because I never wanted to and I never needed to. I don’t want to be clinging onto the past.

Apparently you’re a bit of a watch collector. How many do you have and which is your favourite? Ever met a footballer with more watches than you?
Alex Bardwell, Worksop

I have about 40. I have my own brand, which is called IWC, but I also like Seiko, Franck Muller and even Swatch. It all depends on the occasion and who offered them to me. I’m not sure if there are footballers who have more than I do! 

Much has been written about your transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid. Can you tell us exactly what happened? Is it true you never wanted to leave?
Karl Tapper, Peterborough

I think they later used the fact that I was leaving to show they had financial problems

I thought that Barcelona were not treating me properly by not paying me according to my importance at the club. The chance of joining Real Madrid came up but the directors of Barcelona assumed I was bluffing them.

I think they later used the fact that I was leaving to show they had financial problems. In the end, when I already had a deal with Real Madrid, it’s true they agreed to give me what I was asking for and there was a chance for me to stay. But it was too late and I ended up going to Real Madrid to avoid problems for my agent, who had a commitment with them.

What are your memories of that infamous game at the Camp Nou involving bottles and pigs’ heads? Did you prepare any differently for the game and were you concerned for your welfare on the pitch?
James Green, Chesterfield

It was a significant game for me, as it made me much more mature. I was probably the only player in the world who had 100,000 people together just against him. My build-up for that match was exactly the same as it always was.

My only concern was to play football and do my part. But of course I was a bit worried that I could be harmed, because you never know if there’s some crazy guy who will do something stupid.

At Real Madrid, when the team included yourself, Zidane, Ronaldo, Raul, Beckham, were there any actual tactics? Or was it simply a case of expressing yourselves?
Dominic Sheehan, Harrogate

In our first season, with Vicente del Bosque as coach, things went well for us – we won almost everything. Things went wrong the next season, especially when some directors started to get involved in technical issues, using their influence to affect the players with non-football issues.

Who is the best full-back you’ve ever come up against?
Oliver Stanley, Birmingham

Roberto Carlos and Bixente Lizarazu. I had some intense duels with both and some of them were historical. They were two very fast and aggressive players and it was hard to beat them.

Former Valencia full-back Javier Garrido once said: ‘It’s impossible to stop Figo unless the whole defence helps out.’ Did you know early on in a game when you had the beating of your defender? How would you say your dribbling skills compared to Zidane and Ronaldo?
Ash Sutton, Ipswich

A player can usually figure out if he will have a good game in the first minutes of a match. When you start with one or two good things, you will be more confident and everything will come to you easier. There are no secrets to dribbling. My gravity point is lower than Ronaldo’s or Zidane’s, so my dribbling is shorter because of that. Ronaldo normally dribbles faster and Zizou had a wider step dribbling.

When David Beckham joined Real Madrid, the press made out there was a big rivalry between both of you. Did you laugh about this when he joined? As one of the few English speakers, I heard that you even helped him find a house...

Nick Booth, St Helens

I laughed a lot at those stories. People wrote things without even knowing what’s happening in the dressing room

Yes, it was something totally made up by the press... I laughed a lot at those stories. People wrote things without even knowing what’s happening in the dressing room. I’ve always had a great relationship with David and now that we are both in the same city, although at different clubs, we are still in touch.

He’s a good person who is easy to deal with. Some people also said that Zidane never passed me the ball and I didn’t pass to him, but when they looked at the statistics they realised that we were the players who actually passed the most to each other.

You’re a fan of Queen: is Queen reforming without Freddie Mercury wrong? What’s you’re favourite Queen song?
Rhys Evans, Hartlepool

Actually I’m not a big fan of Queen. I respect them a lot for what they have achieved. I think it’s good they are reforming again, as long as they keep the quality they had before. My favourite Queen song? Well, I guess I will have to say it’s We Are The Champions. It’s a natural choice, no?

After Calciopoli, did the Inter players really celebrate winning the title, or did it feel like a hollow victory?
Joe Harper, Gloucester

When the final decision was made public, most of us weren’t in Milan and of course we didn’t celebrate it the same way. But we all know that the court’s decision repaired the injustice that existed for the previous years. It was a fair prize for all the players that had committed so much for Inter and that hadn’t won due to some dark reasons.

In 2008, some loon accused you of killing a black cat that was supposedly bringing bad luck to the team. Why and how did this story come about? What did you make of this?
Colin Milburn, Glasgow

Unfortunately, it’s true that one of my team-mates did drive over a cat, here in La Pinetina

Yes, that’s one story that unbelievably came out on the front page of a paper. To write a story like that is bad, but on the front page... it’s ridiculous! The thing took such proportions that I had to take legal action. I spoke to the journalist who wrote it and I gave him the chance to retract it and write a denial. He said he wouldn’t do it and so I took legal action to defend my name and force the paper to write a denial in the same terms they wrote the story.

Unfortunately, it’s true that one of my team-mates did drive over a cat, here in La Pinetina. But I didn’t even know that until it was published in the paper.

I was gutted when you didn’t sign for Liverpool a few years ago. How close did you get to joining the Reds – or any other Premier League team for that matter?
Eddie Cawson, Greenwich

Well, it’s true that I had the chance to go to England when I left Real Madrid, but I ended up coming to Inter. Which club? It doesn’t matter now. It belongs in the past.

Can you shed light on why the transfer to Al-Ittihad fell through? You even went to Saudi Arabia to sign a contract!
Brett Marsdon, via e-mail

When the time came for them to show the bank guarantees, they never did it

Because people lied and were dishonest with me. I’ve never been to Saudi Arabia – if I had, maybe they wouldn’t have let me come out again! All the contracts were signed, by me and them, but when the time came for them to show the bank guarantees, they never did it. So I ended the contract.

Was there any truth in the rumour linking you with a move to QPR in 2008? Would you consider dropping down a division before you retire?
Sam Campbell, Gateshead

It’s totally false. There was never anything. And no, I would not consider playing in a lower division before I retire.

You’ve scored some great goals, but which is your favourite?
Mike Cooper, Blackpool

I didn’t score that many... maybe that goal against England at Euro 2000. It was a thrilling game and during a very big competition. Or one that I scored for Barcelona against Real Madrid.

How would you assess the achievements of the Portuguese national team during your time as a player? Good, because you reached two semi-finals and a final? Or disappointing because you never actually won anything? Which year do you think you had the best team?
Phil McDonald, Bristol

I think it was very good, it was fantastic. For a country with 10 million inhabitants to have reached two semi-finals and one final of major competitions in such a short period is something extraordinary. It’s true we didn’t win any big competitions but I think the generation to which I belonged helped to change Portuguese football.

I hope the level can be maintained because you need 100 steps to get up there and one step is enough to bring you down again. I can’t say which team was the best because we always had great teams – in the real sense of the word. We were very united, each one of us knew exactly what to do and exactly when to do it. And it happened even before Luiz Felipe Scolari took the job.

Portrait: Giorgio Ravezzani. From the March 2009 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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